5,000 FEET OVER WESTMINSTER — Diggs curled his front paws and plopped his head down. His big brown eyes drooped, his tail hung limp and breathing steadied.
Only the left ear of the retriever mix occasionally twitched as Michele McGuire’s co-pilot succumbed to the altitude and mellowed in his back seat aboard the Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Like 47 other dogs rescued Sunday, Diggs was part of The Great Escape II. Set up by Animal Rescue Flights, The Great Escape was a collaboration of shelters and pilots to save the lives of death-row dogs.
And it’s volunteer pilots like Westminster resident McGuire who make the operation feasible. Because they love animals and flying, the pilots risk gusting winds and spend countless dollars to find the puppies a happy home.
“It keeps you sharp, you network with some pilots and get to save some fur balls in the process,” McGuire said. “There are enough requests that I could fly everyday. But most pilots are weekend warriors and weather permitting, we fly as much as we can.”
Diggs started his week at the Anderson County Animal Shelter in South Carolina. But this morning, he hopped aboard Matt Paxton’s airplane in Salisbury, N.C., and flew in to Frederick, where he met up with McGuire. She then flew him to Montgomery, N.Y., where he was greeted by a receptive bunch from Pets Alive Animal Sanctuary, who couldn’t get enough of the pup. Though McGuire bonded with Diggs and maybe would have loved to take him home herself, her part of the mission was complete.
Since September, she’s been flying dogs just like Diggs who need to be rescued from shelters that euthanize unwanted pets. In her 16 missions, she’s flown to many different places with all kinds of company. “My record is 16 puppies [at once],” she said. “We had crates and things all stacked up in here.”
Even after months of loading dozens of puppies on flights, animal lovers say more needs to be done.
Law Wright, of West Chester, Pa, who met McGuire in New York, said the dogs rescued on Sunday came from a shelter that will get about 16,000 dogs per year and only 5,000 are adopted. “The rest are euthanized and it is awful,” Wright said. “And that’s typical of counties in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.”
Chatting over lunch with McGuire, Lori and Joe Bisnov, of Gaylordsville, Conn., empathized over the number of dogs being put to sleep at animal shelters.
“In the South, they’re not as educated about spaying and neutering their pets,” Lori Bisnov said. “So it’s just a really good feeling knowing that you did something to [save] a dog.”
Jerry and Leslie Smith, of Waynesville, N.C., spent time in the fields at Frederick Municipal Airport walking the dogs and wondering how so many good dogs could be euthanized, too.
“It’s our first rescue flight and I just want to take them all home,” Leslie said. “As many as 400 per week get put to sleep [at Anderson] and it’s just terrible. They’re so trusting and all of them are adoptable. But it is nice to know there are areas in the country where the spay and neuter [mentality] is working and you can move these dogs around to where they’re wanted.” As Kerry Clair, of Pets Alive Animal Sanctuary in Middletown, N.Y., came running out to greet Diggs once he landed in Montgomery, her arms were already out to embrace the 6-month-old pup.
“Diggs you are just so precious,” she said. “You’re going to get a good home. And Michele, thank you so much for doing this.” Pets Alive is a no-kill shelter that took in 32 dogs Sunday from the South. Clair said 95 percent of the total dogs at the sanctuary come from kill shelters. Before letting McGuire take off from the Orange County airport, Julia Ryan gave her a big hug and thanked her again for her repeated efforts.
Ryan is the co-founder of Animal Rescue Flights and she’s continually coordinating rescues across the region.
“A little bit more than a year ago this started … and now we have about 300 pilots and 100 ground volunteers helping us move animals every weekend,” Ryan said.
“We’re trying to save as many dogs as possible, but in some areas there’s just a huge over-population problem.”
A long day
McGuire only flew one leg of the rescue, but it was plenty taxing.
An 11 a.m. take-off time from Carroll County Regional Airport, meant she was prepping her Cessna before 10.
Once, she landed in Frederick and had lunch at the Airways Inn Restaurant with a few other pilots, it was off to the tarmac to wait for the incoming dogs.
By 1 p.m., about 10 dogs from the Anderson Shelter had flown into Frederick and were stretching their legs. McGuire met the dogs with treats and co-pilot bandanas. After coercing Diggs into her plane, a 2 p.m. takeoff into a 15 mph headwind put McGuire and Diggs on track for New York at 4 p.m.
Diggs snoozed off and on after crossing the Susquehanna River over Columbia, Pa., until about Middletown, when the plane started its descent from 5,000 feet to land at the Orange County Airport in Montgomery.
As the pup was playing with folks from Pets Alive, McGuire waited out the winds. Eventually the 20 mph gusts eased. She fueled up and was off for Carroll again by about 5:15 p.m.
Headed right into the sun and a bit of a head wind, McGuire’s Skyhawk averaged about 100 knots on the journey home and gently landed back in Carroll shortly before 7 p.m.
“I hope Diggs has a happy home,” she said as the day ended. “And it’s a shame we can’t rescue more, too, because they’re all lovable dogs.”
Reach staff writer Bryan Schutt at 410-857-7886 or email@example.com.